Iron Man 3 Outsold the Entire Book-Publishing Industry

Recently, I wanted some reassurance that I’m not the only gung-ho movie-watcher (I went to Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness opening weekend) and lazy reader (still haven’t read new books by Nate Silver or Junot Diaz, despite lusting after them in bookstores – the books, that is, not the authors, cuties though they are).

Anyway, I craved a good statistic, and I found it: On May 3rd (the day I saw Iron Man), more Americans bought tickets to Iron Man 3 than bought books. I mean all books. Combined.

That day, Iron Man 3 grossed $69 million. Let’s assume an average price of $10 per ticket. (That’s much higher than the 2012 average of $7.96, but then again, some of those Iron Man tickets were 3D, which is more expensive.) That works out to 6.9 million tickets, so nearly 7 million people saw Iron Man 3 that day.

Nationwide book sales are tougher to pinpoint. One site suggests $16 billion in sales in the US per year. That’s roughly $45 million per day – or just under 6 million books, if we assume the average book costs $8. That’s fewer than the Iron Man 3 tickets.

Another site says roughly 2 billion books are sold per year (or 5 million books per day). That still falls short of Iron Man 3.

My own totally rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate would be that the average American buys 5 books per year, making for 4 million books sold per day. Again: that’s below Iron Man 3.

In addition, we’re probably overestimating the number of people buying books, for two reasons. First, book sales are concentrated around back-to-school time (August-September) and the winter holidays (December-January), not in early May. So dividing the annual total by 365 gives us too high a number. Second, whereas very few people go to see the same movie twice on the same day, plenty of people buy multiple books on the same day. That fact further drives down the number of book-buyers.

The one big caveat: I don’t know how book sales are distributed within a given week. If Friday is an especially popular day for book-buying, then I may be wrong.

Until then, I’ll keep saying it: in a head-to-head match-up, Robert Downey, Jr. is more popular than reading.

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16 thoughts on “Iron Man 3 Outsold the Entire Book-Publishing Industry

    • Forbes says $20m for King last year, and $75m for Downey Jr. But I bet King’s still got the career lead. In any case, I’d say they’re both doing a’ight.

  1. I have to admit, I rarely buy a book, but I am an avid library user. My budget can’t afford books anymore.

    • I’m with you there. So far, my public library doesn’t have an option to check out movie tickets.
      But that’s what we get. Things have elevated value when they’re new.
      I’ll probably wait to see Iron Man 3, although, I am planning on seeing Pacific Rim in theathers.

    • I’d say library use still merits a “good cultural consumer” badge. My wife has gotten me addicted to used book stores. I buy maybe 1-2 new books per year.

      Pacific Rim looks pretty good, by the way.

  2. Pingback: The sad math of our culture | Mississippi Math Initiative

  3. You’re comparing a big Hollywood release to an average day of book-selling. What happens if you compare an average day at the movies to an average day at Barnes & Nobles?

    Alternatively, what happens if you compare a blockbuster release to a mega-bestseller release? I would guess that Harry Potter book releases, for example, outsell Hollywood. But that’s a bit of an unfair comparison. And J.K. Rowling probably has both Stephen King and Robert Downey, Jr. whooped on career earnings.

    Now the question is: does a Harry Potter book release outsell a Harry Potter movie release?

    • Yeah, this was a very cherry-picked day. My guess is that there are only a handful of movies in the past few decades that have had a day where they outsold all books.

      The 7th Harry Potter book sold 8.3 million copies its first day. That probably beats the number of people who saw the movie on any given day. But that’s an unusually favorable comparison for the book industry – Harry Potter is far and away the bestselling book series in recent memory, while it’s only one of several lucrative movie franchises.

      I’ll dig into the Harry Potter numbers. I’d like to imagine that more people have read the books than seen the movies. But my hunch is that the opposite is true.

      • Where a family of four would buy four tickets to said movie release, they would only purchase one copy of the book and read it four times. Additionally, how many readers does the book count in perpetuity? However, speaking as a member of the female audience, I would rather watch RDJr than read Harry Potter…jus say’n. That was part of the equation, wuun’t it?

  4. “head-to-head match-up, Robert Downey, Jr. is more popular than reading.”
    Nope. It may take some people 2-3 days to read a book, whereas a movie is 112 minutes (give or take). So while RDjr movie outsold books that day, if you look at the time spent on the activity of reading versus movie watching, more people read. Plus you are only looking at new books purchased – which doesn’t take into account books borrowed from library or swapped or bought 2nd hand. And that’s not to mention how many people read magazines and newspapers. Reading for the win!

    • Touche. You’re certainly right. (And while I knew I was slipping into rhetorical excess, it’s good to be called out on it.)

      A more interesting comparison might be “money spent on Avengers the Friday it opened” (about $80 million) vs. “money spent on all reading that day.” Newspapers and magazines might push the latter total above $80 million, but I’m not so sure.

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